A common problem I see with independent consultants and creatives:
Focusing on the wrong kinds of competitors.
Specifically, we tend to overestimate some, and underestimate others.
As a result, we channel our energy poorly. And our marketing isn’t as effective as it should be.
Let’s break the problem down and see what we can do differently.
The Competition You’re Overestimating
We soloists tend to overestimate what would traditionally be called “primary and secondary competitors.” And there are a lot of them.
I’m a brand strategist. My primary and secondary competitors include all other independent brand strategists, plus strategy consultancies, most advertising agencies, and creatives who now claim to do strategy.
If I wanted to wrap my head around all those competitors, it would break my brain. How the hell do you define a point of difference vs. “the universe”?
The good news: You don’t need to.
Why? Because your prospective clients won’t take that step either.
I’ve been the client and can tell you: They’re busy. They don’t have the time to grasp all the possible options.
They need someone that they (1) are aware of and (2) see as an accessible authority.
Those are two criteria you can meet, yeah?
The Competition You’re Underestimating
The competition you’re underestimating is not a traditional competitor at all.
Instead, it’s one of three things:
- The status quo. The client is already DIYing what you do, and nothing disastrous has happened so far.
- A limited budget. The client wants to do engage someone like you, but they also want to do plenty of other things, and they only have so much money.
- Inertia. Nothing bad happens if they don’t engage your services immediately, so they do nothing.
These are the things that are truly preventing the client from taking action – specifically, of hiring someone to improve their condition.
The Steps You Can Take
Instead of overestimating your competitors, do these:
Understand – But Don’t Obsess Over – What Your Competitors Are Doing
By all means, get a sense of what your “traditional” competitors are up to, especially if you’re new to soloism.
But don’t feel you should paint by their numbers.
When I audit the competition, I use it for three purposes:
Inspiration – What do they offer? At what price? How do they frame the problem? How do they present their solution? What else do they do well?
“No-Fly Zones” – What are they doing that you want to avoid? Example: On social media, some guys adopt the persona of the “no-holds-barred truth-teller.” And at some point, they always cross the line into “insufferable jackass.” I don’t want to live in that space, so now I know what to avoid.
Confidence-Building – I used to get pissed off when people who clearly lacked expertise had (what appeared to be) a brisk business anyways. But then I realized two things: The market is big enough for both of us; and when their low-level efforts inevitably fail, the buyer will be looking for a better solution. I can help with that. And that gives me confidence.
Proudly Flaunt Your Difference
When you audit the competition, “aw hell no” will be a fairly common reaction to what you see.
This is a good clue as to your spiky point of view – those areas where you see things differently, where you sharply zig while your competitors zag.
For inspiration, here are a few of mine.
Some competitors: Offer productized services.
Me: Bespoke consulting only. Productized services are great for the producer but almost always sub-par for the buyer. I build to fit.
Most competitors: Have never managed a brand or owned a P&L.
Me: I’ve walked in the buyer’s shoes. I was client-side for seven years, leading brands to 10x the category growth rate every single year, and I’ve owned a $600 million P&L.
Most competitors: Will pass the client’s work down to the cheapest option – junior staff or AI.
Me: I have no junior staff, and I don’t use AI. If we work together, nobody will touch your strategy but me, and because I limit my client base, you’ll have my full attention.
Ask yourself: What is meaningfully different about…
- My experience and expertise?
- The process by which I deliver exceptional results?
- My point of view?
Don’t bury these things – lead with them. They won’t matter to every prospect, but they will matter a lot to some, and those will be easy sales to close.
Always Be Marketing
Remember the conditions we established above: For a client to hire you, they first have to know that you exist, and that you’re a credible choice.
(Controversial point of view: In our line of work, difference is not as important as credibility.)
When you shut off your marketing machine, people forget that you’re an authority, or that you even exist at all.
So move the ball ahead every week (every day, if you can). Remember: Any marketing is better than no marketing, and anything above zero compounds.
Render the Competition Obsolete
The best way to do this is to be generous with your expertise.
Whether it’s a podcast, a blog, a series of LinkedIn posts, presentations to local business groups, or something else, give value away freely and generously.
Your audience will see you as an authority, and when they’re ready to move, yours may be the only name in their minds.
I once had a guy call me after I presented at a lunch-n-learn at my local chamber of commerce. The catch: He called me nearly five years after that presentation. He still remembered my name, he was ready to act, and I was the only person he contacted.
Keep planting seeds, even when you don’t know exactly when they’ll sprout.
And instead of underestimating the status quo, limited budgets, and inertia, do these:
Make Your Frame and Your Benefits Crystal-Clear
Clients need to know what you do and how that benefits them – in that order.
Too many websites talk about pie-in-the-sky benefits, but leave the viewer confused as to what exactly is being sold. Don’t let that be you.
Be crystal-clear, not unnecessarily clever. This helps to bust through both the status quo and inertia.
Make It Easy to Work Together the First Time
Budgets are tight everywhere. And until you build authority, they’re even tighter.
So make the first gig an easy Yes.
Don’t drop your drawers on price; instead, reduce scope.
Can you offer a paid audit or assessment that opens the door to downstream work? Can you fight the urge to “do it all at once” (this is a particular struggle of mine), and instead offer a phased approach?
This helps to bust through the status quo, limited budgets and inertia.
Be a Collaborator, Not a Threat
We get hired because we can do something the client can’t do on their own.
Sometimes, this means someone on their team has been deemed unable to execute in your area of expertise. To that person, your presence is a threat.
So understand who the players are. And be clear that you’re not here to undermine anyone’s authority, but to add to it. You’re the expert in your area, they’re the experts on their biz, and the collaboration is where the best outcomes lie.
Keep the spotlight on them. Make them look good.
This helps to bust through the status quo, in particular. And you’ll build allies who will look to hire you again.
The quick summary:
You don’t need to define some new-to-the-world point of difference against an overwhelmingly large competitive set. Don’t waste your time on that.
You just need to be a credible, top-of-mind choice, and an easy, unthreatening Yes.
That’s well within your grasp, my friend.
Your time is valuable, and I hope I’ve rewarded it. If so, your shares are greatly appreciated, as I try to spread the gospel to as many freelancers as possible.
I have a limited number of slots available for 1-1 coaching. I’m not some guy who’s been freelancing for a minute – I’ve been doing it since 1997, with brands you’ve actually heard of. Click here to find out more about how my coaching services can help you level up.
Copyright 2024 – Matthew Fenton. All Rights Reserved. You may reprint this article with the original, unedited text intact, including the footer section.